They say with age comes wisdom. I don’t know if that sentiment really holds true, but in my own experiences, with age at least comes a little bit of perspective. And over my 30-going-on-31 years on this earth, I’ve gained as much perspective on the late Dean Smith as any other figure in American history.
In our society, we often unjustly elevate sports stars to the level of historical icons and heroes simply because they can run fast, jump high, make a lot of money, and are plastered all over our television screens.
Yet in the case of Smith, who coached men’s basketball at the University of North Carolina for 36 years and passed away on Feb. 7 at age 83, not nearly enough has been said about the way he used his powerful position in athletics to irrevocably change our culture and society for the better.
Even after all of the awards, the National Championships, the Basketball Hall of Fame induction, the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and now the posthumous prose from a who’s who of the biggest media outlets and voices in the world, not enough has been said about his impact on American society. In a head coaching career that spanned from 1961-1997 Dean Smith literally changed the game of basketball, spurring one evolution after the next for nearly four decades, but he helped to change the nation far more off the court.
“He was 1 (SIC) of the great figures in basketball, even more so for his humanity than his coaching brilliance,” wrote Steve Kerr, a 15-year NBA veteran and the current head coach of the Golden State Warriors.
Condolences to Dean Smith’s family. He was 1 of the great figures in basketball, even more so for his humanity than his coaching brilliance.
— Steve Kerr (@SteveKerr) February 8, 2015
“Coach Smith showed us something that I’ve seen again and again on the court – that basketball can tell us a lot more about who you are than a jump shot ever could,” said President Barack Obama in a release.
During his 36-year head coaching career, Smith won 879 games, which at the time of his retirement was the most in Division I history and remains fourth in the all-time record book. Smith won 17 ACC regular-season titles, 13 ACC Tournaments, led the Tar Heels to 11 final fours, winning two national championships (1982, 1993). He also coached Team USA to an Olympic Gold in 1976. Smith was an eight-time winner of the ACC Coach of the Year award and four times was named the national Coach of the Year.
Yet his laundry list of awards doesn’t begin to tell his story.
Smith was born in Emporia, Kansas, spent his high school years Topeka, was a student-athlete at the University of Kansas, and spent the final 54 years of his life living in North Carolina. While Smith’s route through the Midwest and South might have been a common trek for an athlete, it was hardly the typical route taken by a progressive thinker or champion of equality.
Yet Smith was, quietly, just that, spearheading integration first on his own high school basketball team in Topeka, then on the Tar Heels roster, and then in the community at large. When all was said and done, perhaps no one had done more to break racial barriers and advance equality in North Carolina – a state fielded more confederate soldiers than any other in the Civil War – than Smith.
The story has been told many times before, but Smith’s sense of fairness and equality was instilled in him by his father, Aflred, a high school basketball coach, fielded a roster with the first African-American player in school history in 1932 and led Emporia High to the 1934 Kansas state champion – becoming the first integrated team in the history of the state tournament.
A terrific story written for ESPN.com by Richard Lapchick in 2011 detailed Smith’s efforts as a student at Topeka High to integrate the basketball team. At the time, Topeka High has an integrated student body, and several of their athletic teams fielded multi-racial rosters, but the basketball team was all white, with a separate, semi-incorporated team of the high school’s black players suiting up and playing in the junior high school. The school also held segregated dances and African American’s also could not use the school’s swimming pool.
According to Lapchick, a teenage Smith relentlessly pestered school administration to integrate the team, and, thanks to the efforts he spearheaded, the team became fully integrated in 1951 – three years before the landmark Brown v Board of education decision striking down segregated schools across the country.
After being hired as the head coach at UNC in 1961, Smith not only worked to integrate the Tar Heels, making future NBAer Charlie Scott the first African-American scholarship athlete in 1966. But Smith didn’t simply desegregate the basketball team: He desegregated the entire school, then the surrounding Chapel Hill Community, and the entire ACC Conference.
Stories abound of how, before Smith ever recruited Scott, the coach would routinely dine with African-Americans at restaurants that had previously refused to serve them, and eating at previously segregated restaurants with African-American students, and helped a black man purchase a home in a previously all-white community.
As Edmund Burke famously said, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Far too often in our society, people in positions of power do just that. Not Smith. Smith went out of his way to face inequality and injustice head on and use his position of power to help, even though it could make his life more complicated.
In addition to issues of race, Smith also spoke out against the Vietnam War and the death penalty. Whether you agreed with his views or not, there is no denying that in the conservative south, Smith risked ruffling feathers and alienating fans and it is impossible not to respect someone who stands for his beliefs, regardless of how it could negatively affect his life.
On the court and in practices Smith was also a rare breed. While words like “mentor” and “father-figure,” are tossed around the coaching world, they often ring hollow in the million dollar coaching industry. But according to the accounts of hundreds of former players, from arguably the greatest player of all-time in Michael Jordan, future NBA stars like James Worth, Sam Perkins, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Vince Carter, down to the end of the bench walk-ons, Smith genuinely loved his players, and they loved him back.
“Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father,” said Jordan in a released statement.
He also graduated his players, at a clip of nearly 97-percent, something unheard of in today’s one-and-done era.
I never had the pleasure of getting to know Smith. As a young kid who grew up watching the “Refuse to Lose” UMass Minutemen of the early to mid 1990s, I knew Smith only as the head coach of the team that, on paper, epitomized the basketball establishment whose party UMass was trying to crash.
When the Minutemen upset Smith’s defending champion Tar Heels in November of 1993, I gloated over the victory. They say you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone, and I wish, even as a young kid, I had understood at the time just how special a man Smith was when I had the opportunity to watch him live.
But his legacy will never again be lost on me.